Identifying ways to harness inherent hostility into harmonious behavior
By Patti Carmalt-Vener 08/16/2012
I admit I’ve had times when I’ve been extremely angry and lost my cool. I’ve yelled, slammed doors and even punched a wall. I’m not condoning my behavior, but I’ve never hit anyone nor threatened to.
At my wife’s urging, I went to therapy over a year ago to work on my anger management issues. She says I’ve done much better, but she doesn’t think people ever really change and that I could always get angry again. I disagree, because I know I’ve changed. What therapy has made me realize — without wanting to label her — is that my wife is a very angry person, maybe even more so than me.
At first, I thought she was exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior, but she doesn’t do any of the things that fit the therapist’s examples, like being manipulative, secretive, detached or a martyr. She rarely yells, throws things or acts aggressive, but I feel there’s always something beneath the surface.
She’s beautiful, very loving and lots of fun when we’re out in public. But when we’re alone, she invariably wants to pick a fight. My mood will be fine, happy and content, but she’ll pick and pick about the smallest thing until I get very frustrated.
Why would she keep doing this if she doesn’t have some kind of anger issue? She refuses to get help, because she doesn’t think she has a problem; she thinks her behavior is all in response to me. What are examples of subtle anger, or behavior or communication that’s driven by anger? I really want to understand her better.
Anger is an emotion that doesn’t necessarily result in an expression of aggression. Aggression is a behavior, while hostility is a mood or temperament that often includes anger and aggression; it’s a way of being that stems from certain patterns of thinking, judgments and attitudes.
Hostility creates a systematic bias of negative feelings in a way that a chronically hostile person may feel it necessary to defend against the person or entity one feels hostile toward. Rather than expressing aggressive behavior by exploding unpredictably, being destructive or inflicting harm on others, a common way a hostile person reacts to minor irritations is by indiscriminately escalating arguments.
If, for instance, your wife feels threatened or hurt by a certain exchange between the two of you, there are certain ways she may escalate a simple disagreement into a full-scale argument. One way is to consistently observe your behavior in a negative or lacking way — “I noticed you forgot to take out the trash again.” Another way may be to express painful and angry feelings by grilling you concerning behaviors or conversations and then telling you what your motivation for that behavior is — “I knew you were talking to my sister so sweetly because you wanted to con money out of her.”
She may also give you ultimatums, hurl accusations or remember embarrassing personal moments about you that you long to forget — “Your behavior today reminded me of when you used to mindlessly drink all the time.” Then, after escalating the conversation, she might dismiss your comments by saying “Whatever” or “Who cares?” When you have the urge to defend yourself and try to respond, she might arbitrarily set a limit on the conversation by saying “The talk is over and there’s nothing more to say.”
You might even get the silent treatment, wherein she ignores you or denies anything is wrong but her tone and mood remain cold. Cursing or swearing is often common in hostile escalations of arguments as well as using nonverbal messages, such as negative/tense body language, grimacing, sneering, refusing to look at you, rolling her eyes or narrowing them in a threatening manner.
If your wife would be willing to explore and identify with a psychotherapist the root of specific hostile behavioral patterns of relating, it could be a positive step toward acknowledging how these escalations occur, as well as understanding the result and consequences of her behavior.
Simple disagreements could then be de-escalated or even prevented from escalating into much more. Keep taking responsibility for your part of the problem and nicely but firmly encourage her to look at her own behavior as well.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com..